Chocolate that Flashes its Passport
Date of publication: March 8, 2006
Source: New York Times
By Kim Severson
His name was Conrad Miller, and he would be our chocolate sommelier for the afternoon. So it has come to this. Chocolate, a comfortable world that for many people exists between the downscale joy of a Kit Kat bar and the exhilaration of a well-made ganache, now requires a sommelier.
It is no longer enough to understand the difference between milk and bittersweet. Even the know-it-all chocolate cowboys who brag about eating noting less than 85 percent cocoa bars are out of their league. Now, the game is all about origin. As with olive oil or coffee, knowing where one’s chocolate came from is starting to matter. Even the most casual wine drinker can name a preferred varietal, and the neophyte cheese fan understands that Brie is French and good Cheddar comes from England.
Terroir, it turns out, matters in chocolate, too.
That’s where Mr. Miller comes in. He’s a part-time musician with Midwest Mennonite roots, but he looks perfectly at home in the Flatiron district, where the French chocolate maker Michel Cluizel opened a shop in November at ABC Carpet and Home. It is Mr. Cluizel’s only shop in America and much of the chocolate reflects the specific piece of land where the cacao beans were grown. Mr. Miller’s job is to help the baffled but curious make sense of it all. His tools are a tray of foil-wrapped chocolate wafers from several countries, a glass of water and a little bowl of tortilla chips – he prefers unsalted – to provide a palate scrub.
One day last week, he walked me through a $35 tasting. We pondered the snappy break and acidic finish of chocolate from the African island of São Tomé and discussed how growing cacao trees in the soil of a former mango grove might result in chocolate with a faint flash of the fruit. We contemplated the raisiny ways of a bar from Papua New Guinea, which Mr. Miller suggested would go well with port. Each chocolate wafer had its story, which Mr. Miller was happy to tell. “It’s like reading a novel and eating a novel all at the same time,” he said. But when it comes down to it, can he really discern Ghana from Grenada? Ecuador from Colombia? “Regions I can tell. Continents, at least,” he said. “I’m still working on the countries.”
For those more interested in politics than hedonism, eating chocolate according to country makes it a little easier to figure out the environmental and labor practices behind each bar. The use of child slave labor in cocoa production is of particular concern. In the late 1990’s, reports of large numbers of child slaves being used in cocoa production in Ivory Coast began to surface. Since the, the world’s major chocolate producers and the Chocolate Manufacturers Association have vowed to work to end child slavery in the cocoa business. So has TransFair USA, the fair trade certifying group, but less than 1 percent of chocolate sold in the United Sates meets the group’s standards for safe labor practices, fair wages and social responsibility, said Ella Silverman, cocoa accounts manager.
Some companies are producing bars that are designated both organic and single-origin chocolate. But cacao pods are highly susceptible to pests, especially when the dried beans aer shipped. And the nature of cacao production doesn’t lend itself easily to organic certification. As a result, the number of organic, single-origin chocolate bars is small and most ard not well-regarded by the world’s top chocolate experts. “Every time I eat organic chocolate a little voice in my head says: Just let me give a cheque to the co-operative, but please don’t make me eat this!” Chloé Doutre-Roussel, the chocolate buyer and consultant, wrote in her book “The chocolate Connoisseur.” (Tarcher, 2006)
For someone who just wants a good piece of eating chocolate, trying to sort out the politics from the percentages is akin to trying to drink from a fire hose. At the Whole Foods in Union Square in Manhattan, the chocolate bar section holds more than 120 choices. ... Michael Recchiuti, the San Francisco chocolatier known for a line of dipped chocolate ganache infused with flavors like green apple, star anise and pink peppercorn, offers a small tasting package featuring four varietal chocolates.
“So much of it is just marketing,” Mr. Recchiuti said. “I have to literally not listen to all this chatter about percentage and where it comes from, and listen to my palate.”